The Water Here Smells Bad

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The water in the St Johns Management District (SJRWMD) smells bad.  The Governing board chair, John Miklos, has been criticized repeatedly for conflict of interest, and now has an ethics charge (see our post “Water Board Chair Receives Ethics Complaint.”)  After the complaint was filed, the City of DeBary reportedly had over 37,000 emails confiscated by the police.

John Miklos

We all like clean water, so hopefully the SJRWMD leaders will take appropriate steps to clean up this smell of pollution.  And, at the same time, maybe they can consider taking steps to save the conservation area near Gemini Springs.  Our thanks to Nathan Crabbe for doing his part by telling the public about the way the SJRWMD goes about protecting our water resources.Scroll

Editorial: Water district deal deserves scrutiny

Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents took records from DeBary City Hall on Wednesday as part of a criminal investigation.

Published: Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.

Last Modified: Friday, May 27, 2016 at 2:01 p.m.

Questions about a proposed land deal between the city of DeBary and the St. Johns River Water Management District are piling up so fast, you need wings to stay above them.

DeBary’s proposal to develop 102 acres near Gemini Springs currently set aside for conservation would be controversial just from the standpoint of the potential environmental impact. But the project has earned additional scrutiny for its political ties.

The city would have to acquire the land from the water district with the agency’s approval. To abet that process, the city hired an environmental consulting firm, Bio-Tech Consulting Inc. of Orlando, whose president, John Miklos, also happens to be chairman of the St. Johns River Water Management District. The district includes parts of Alachua County.

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DeBary is by no means the only client Bio-Tech has represented before the agency: His company has been listed as the agent, consultant or applicant on more than 100 projects in the district since January 2010. Miklos sees no conflict of interest — he says he recuses himself from voting on Bio-Tech issues that come before the board, as required by state law. But that ignores the opportunity for a chairman to wield influence on district staff.

The specter of behind-the-scenes influence only grows with additional information about the genesis of the proposed Gemini Springs development. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that at a May 20, 2015 DeBary City Council workshop, city engineer David Hamstra suggested the city had allies in high places.

“I have to be real careful,” Hamstra began, before indicating there had been “some recent dialogue with St. Johns.”

“About a year ago the idea of going to the Gemini Springs area was pretty much going to be a difficult and exhausting challenge for the city to pursue that,” Hamstra said. “There has been a change in upper management, the governor has changed some of the directors positions. And there may be a relaxing in their position on maybe working with the city after all. I’ll just kind of leave it at that.”

Indeed, earlier that month five senior staff members at the regional water management agency, including the executive director, resigned within seven days of each other, reportedly because Gov. Rick Scott “wanted a new culture in the leadership” — one critics feared would be more amenable to developing environmentally sensitive lands.

At the same workshop, Roger Van Auker, DeBary’s marketing director for transit development, said the city had “preliminary discussion with uh, I don’t want to get into names but, but with some high-ranking officials with the water management district. And they … weren’t negative about our idea at all …”

In March, Van Auker emailed a Bio-Tech official asking him to confirm with Miklos “that there will be no restrictions from SJRWMD” on using the 102 acres for development. The Bio-Tech official replied that Miklos’ “idea is currently to transfer ownership of the entire Gemini Springs property over to the city of DeBary.” Miklos dismissed the email exchange as “just a miscommunication.”

Florida’s water management districts are funded with tax dollars. Their boards are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. They must be accountable to the public.

The state attorney or attorney general should investigate the coordination between the district and DeBary. Hopefully that is exactly what is starting to happen. State law enforcement agents descended on DeBary City Hall last week with a search warrant, seizing more than 37,000 emails on the proposed land deal.

— A version of this editorial originally appeared in the News-Journal, one of The Sun’s sister publications.

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